Suspended sediment is one of the major concerns regarding the quality of water entering the Chesapeake Bay. Some of the highest suspended-sediment concentrations occur on Piedmont streams, including Difficult Run, a tributary of the Potomac River draining urban and suburban parts of northern Virginia. Accurate information on catchment level sediment budgets is rare and difficult to determine. Further, the sediment trapping portion of sediment budget represents an important ecosystem service that profoundly affects downstream water quality. Our objectives, with special reference to human alterations to the landscape, include the documentation and estimation of floodplain sediment trapping (present and historic) and bank erosion along an urbanized Piedmont stream, the construction of a preliminary sediment balance, and the estimation of legacy sediment and recent development impacts. We used white feldspar markers to measure floodplain sedimentation rates and steel pins to measure erosion rates on floodplains and banks, respectively. Additional data were collected for/from legacy sediment thickness and characteristics, mill pond impacts, stream gaging station records, topographic surveying, and sediment density, texture, and organic content. Data were analyzed using GIS and various statistical programs. Results are interpreted relative to stream equilibrium affected by both post-colonial bottomland sedimentation (legacy) and modern watershed hardening associated with urbanization. Six floodplain/channel sites, from high to low in the watershed, were selected for intensive study. Bank erosion ranges from 0 to 470 kg/m/y and floodplain sedimentation ranges from 18 to 1369 kg/m/y (m refers to meters of stream reach). Upstream reaches are net erosional, while downstream reaches have a distinctly net depositional flux providing a watershed sediment balance of 2184 kg/m/y trapped within the system. The amounts of both deposition and erosion are large and suggest nonequilibrium channel conditions. Both peak discharge and number of peaks above base have substantially increased since the mid-1960s when urbanization of the watershed began. Deposition patterns are most closely correlated with channel gradient, sinuosity, and channel width/floodplain width for recent and historic periods. The substantial amounts of fine grained sediment deposited on the floodplain over the past two centuries or so do not appear to be closely related to historic mill pond presence or location. The floodplain continues to provide the critical ecosystem service of sediment trapping in the face of multiple human alterations. Trends in sediment deposition/erosion may react rapidly to land use practices within the watershed and offer a valuable barometer of the effects of management actions.
Additional publication details
Recent and historic sediment dynamics along Difficult Run, a suburban Virginia Piedmont stream